Liberalism's investment in racial fatalism

November 28, 1996|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- Professional auditors of racial rectitude seem dismayed by the good news. They insist, with the ingenuity characteristic of ideologues defending theories from discordant facts and the tenacity of factions defending their functions, that the news is not as good as it appears.

When the Supreme Court ruled that bizarrely shaped congressional districts are unconstitutional if race -- the goal of collecting minority voters to produce a majority -- was the predominant factor in the drawing of them, Jesse Jackson warned of an ''ethnic cleansing of Congress.'' An ACLU leader foresaw ''the bleaching of Congress.'' An NAACP leader, summoning memories of lynchings, said ''the noose is tightening.''

But this year all five black incumbents whose districts were redrawn -- two each in Texas and Georgia, one in Florida -- were re-elected, with majorities ranging from 54 percent to 77 percent, in districts where nonblacks are from 56 percent to 65 percent of the population.

Those who had argued the necessity of racial gerrymandering say the five were re-elected because of the power of incumbency, which was the result of such gerrymandering. But the NAACP official who said incumbency ''gives you the ability to raise money and get your message out'' was conceding the decisiveness of message rather than race.

Why, in the face of good news, insist on the unabated malignant salience of race in the nation's life? Because modern liberalism has a stake in that fiction. Such liberalism, the rationale for the regulatory state, postulates that America's masses have deficits of competence and goodness that require remedial government.

Such liberalism was born with the century, at the high tide of confidence in science and in the reign of experts. (A former professor of political science was elected president in 1912.) Liberalism held that, given the complexities of modern life and the anachronistic -- or worse -- nature of local institutions and attachments, the average American needed succor and supervision from the central government. Power must be concentrated in Washington, and Washington power concentrated in the presidency rather than Congress, which is a concentration of parochial people.

The 1930s were happy days for liberals because the Depression heightened Americans' feelings of dependency. Six decades later, a leader of liberalism (Hillary Rodham Clinton) still insists ''it takes a president'' to raise a child and an act of Congress is needed to help Americans get pets to vets.

When the postwar boom and the democratization of higher education increased Americans' sense of social competence, the civil-rights movement rescued liberalism from irrelevance by giving government a new mission, that of improving the behavior and character of Americans regarding race. It was liberalism's finest hour. Statecraft became soulcraft, successfully. But today liberals discount the success, lest irrelevance loom again.

To guarantee an unendable crisis for liberalism to cope with, liberals encourage ''identity politics,'' the premise being that identities, and rights, derive from group membership, and special rights are owed to grievance groups composed of America's myriad victims.

No others need apply

A corollary is ''categorical representation,'' the theory that the interests of particular groups can be articulated only by members of those groups. Such thinking produces racial gerrymandering and other racial preferences, including O.J. Simpson's acquittal.

Liberalism's self-serving obsession with race is not only irrational, (if the skin color of everyone in Harlem were changed, how would their life prospects improve?), it threatens the rule of law. Jeffrey Rosen argues in The New Republic that the essentially lawless act of the Simpson jury was sediment from our trickle-down culture. The defense's argument -- insinuation, really -- was that objectivity is impossible and hence willfulness is permissible.

This invitation to anarchy flowed from high theory -- ''critical race theory'' -- that flourishes in prestigious law schools. It says the civil-rights movement was futile because futility is foreordained in a society where endemic racism defines everyone's experiences and conditions perceptions. Each group explains reality as it experiences it, through ''narratives'' that are unintelligible, or at least unpersuasive, to other groups.

Racism is so institutionalized that all blacks, Mr. Simpson included, are victims by definition, not by anything so mundane as identifiable acts of discrimination. Race is ''socially constructed,'' so blacks who deviate from group thinking are (to use Lani Guinier's words) not ''authentic'' but merely ''descriptively black.''

Given contemporary liberalism's intellectual and political investment in racial fatalism, it dismisses as delusions developments that less clouded minds see as simply good news.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 11/28/96

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